Saturday, August 25, 2012

E.O. Wilson getting religion wrong

I just finished reading E.O. Wilson's The Social Conquest of Earth.  Written as it was for an educated yet not academically minded audience it is hardly surprising that I didn't learn much new from the book.  Nevertheless, it should serve as a handy reference for teaching in the future and I found it refreshing to see the multi-level selection approach so forcefully promoted even if, in some places, I believe Wilson overstated the case.  Unfortunately, Wilson makes a number of unwarranted and poorly informed attacks against religion.  In the future, I may take each of these in turn.  For the moment, however, I'd like to comment on one in particular since it touches on my own research.

Wilson makes a number of impassioned pleas toward the end of the book about the critical juncture the human species finds itself at.  As might be expected from a biologist, his loudest cries are for the state of the environment:

Sure one moral precept we can agree on is to stop destroying our birthplace, the only home humanity will ever have.

That's certainly a moral precept I can agree on and one that I feel rather strongly about as well.  However, Wilson goes on to say:

It will be useful in taking a second look at science and religion to understand the true nature of the search for objective truth.  Science is not just another enterprise like medicine or engineering or theology.  It is the wellspring of all the knowledge we have of the real world that can be tested and fitted into preexisting knowledge.  It is the arsenal of technologies and inferential mathematics needed to distinguish the true from the false.  It formulates the principles and formulas that tie all this knowledge together.  Science belongs to everybody.  Its constituent parts can be challenged by anybody in the world who has sufficient information to do so.  It is not just "another way of knowing" as often claimed, making it coequal with religious faith.  The conflict between scientific knowledge and the teachings of organized religions is irreconcilable.  The chasm will continue to widen and cause no end of trouble as long as religious leaders go on making unsupportable claims about supernatural causes of reality.

To put this into better perspective, Wilson just a few paragraphs earlier said:

Why, then, is it wise openly to question the myths and gods of organized religion?  Because they are stultifying and divisive.  Because each is just one version of a competing multitude of scenarios that possibly can be true.  Because they encourage ignorance, distract people from recognizing problems of the real world, and often lead them in wrong directions into disastrous actions.

So now we get to the heart of my objection.  As I read it, Wilson is essentially trying to lay the blame for environmental degradation at the feet of religion.  Moreover, he suggests that the only antidote to the destructive nature of religion's superstition is the cold rationality of the scientific enterprise.

This is particularly obnoxious to me because I have been working for the past year and a half on a project with some of Lin Ostrom's students that looks specifically at the relationship between religion and the management of natural resources.  We still have two more cases to code before we begin our analysis.  Nevertheless, it is clear from the 48 cases that we've looked at so far that religion has traditionally had extremely important roles to play in the sustainable use of resources.  For instance, religion often serves to define the physical boundaries of resources and marks those who are allowed to use them.  Religion serves monitoring functions and imposes sanctions for those who break the rules.  It also is an important source of perceived benefits that encourage users to cooperate with others.  Religion provides opportunities for leadership, repositories of local knowledge, calendars to coordinate cooperative efforts and avenues for the establishment and maintenance of social capital.  To say that religion in this context is "stultifying and divisive" is plain and simply wrong.  It is both highly innovative and creative and it leads to greater cooperation for an enterprise that is notoriously difficult.

Now, I can hear the objections already that religion is hardly necessary to provide these services.  This is a fair point.  Indeed, many groups do use secular alternatives to great effect.  Furthermore, many groups that we've studied employ a mixture of religious and secular mechanisms to govern their resources sustainably.  Nevertheless, the fact that religion is providing these vital functions should alone be enough to give us pause about actively working to undermine them.  At least it should give us pause if our primary goal is really better stewardship of the planet.  Religious means of encoding culturally important information may not be rational in the sense that Wilson and others understand that term.  They certainly weren't arrived at through a deliberate process of empirical research checked through peer review.  For that matter they often probably didn't arise as deliberate conservation efforts in the first place.  Many of them, however, have been in use for centuries and, as such, have been subjected to generations of cultural evolution which has produced finely tuned institutions, exquisitely sensitive to local environmental contexts.  Surely if biologists can't place any credence on supernatural entities and superstitious articulations of the way the world works they can at least give some respect for systems refined through natural selection!

Finally, religion is hardly unique in its ability "to distract people from recognizing problems of the real world," nor is it alone in leading "them in wrong directions into disastrous actions."  Time and again we have found cases in our work where the leading cause of the breakdown in sustainable resource management by user groups can be traced to either the privatization of the resource in question or, more often, to the usurpation of local user rights through nationalization.  In this latter case, national governments take over control of resources, eliminating any semblance of local autonomy and denying local users any collective choice rights to determine the rules they are expected to follow.  The results of this kind of policy are almost universally disastrous, leading to rapid environmental degradation.

And where did these policy notions come from?  It was decidedly not from the world's religions.  Rather, it came from western scientists and scholars whose thinking was summarized so concisely and compellingly in Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons.  This represents policy based on rational thought and enjoying strong empirical support from modeling studies and laboratory experiments.  In short, it represents exactly the sort of approach that Wilson touts as being inherently superior to the "unsupportable claims" of religious leaders.  It also happens to be completely and disastrously wrong as Elinor Ostrom's work has shown, work for which she earned a Nobel Prize.  I only hope that the damage caused by such superior, rational thinking can be repaired before it's too late for us all.


  1. Religions are indeed highly adapted. However they aren't adapted to help their human hosts. They are adapted to help themselves. That's much the same situation as with the common cold virus. We can't just assume religions practices are beneficial to their hosts - the issue needs investigating, and the answer may vary depending on which religious practice we are talking about.

  2. The issue does need investigating, which is precisely what I've been doing for the past 19 months within the specific context of the management of common pool resources.

    As for your assertion that religions are adapted to help themselves, that, too, is an empirical issue.

  3. Whether the sun will rise tomorrow could be described as being an "empirical issue". However, we already have a pretty good idea about that - due to past observations and the regularity of the world. We already know that most organisms are adapted to help themselves. Other family members too, a bit, but themselves first. Religions are not significantly different in this regard.

    1. That's an interesting example to choose. People have, after all, actually seen the sun. While I appreciate your commitment to memetics, surely even the most strident supporter must admit that the existence of memes is far from a scientifically settled issue. To assert, therefore, that religious memes put themselves first is to state an assumption, not a fact. Moreover, it is an assumption that seems to ignore the possibility that selection may work on multiple levels. You may well be right, but I'm going to need to see some empirical evidence in support of this position before I use it as a foundation for my own work.

    2. You seem to be the one mentioning memes here.

      Religions aren't much like sterile ant workers - who really do labour mostly on behalf of their kin - they are reproductives. No doubt catholics are more likely to help protestants than say hindus, but all parties would rather win converts through conversion, proselytization, indoctrination, etc.

      There's a case to be made that religions are domesticated. So: just as aphids have adaptations to help ant symbionts, so religions are adapted to help their human hosts. However, that's a case of the aphid - or the religion - helping itself by helping others - not somehow acting contrary to its own self interest.

      I don't think a multi-level selection perspective denies the significance of individuals and individual-level adaptations.

      IMO, it shouldn't be especially controversial to say that religions are adapted to help themselves - most evolved creatures are.

  4. You can really only take the metaphor of religions being like organisms so far, though. It's a useful framework for understanding the growth and decline of religions within a particular area or across time. Nevertheless, religions act in ways that are decidedly different from organisms as well.

    Your assertion that Catholics would rather help Protestants than Hindus may be true. However, I've done field work in a number of liberal Christian denominations where the members would much rather help Hindus and Buddhists than, say fundamentalist or Evangelical Christians with whom they share closer phylogenetic ties. I would also question your assumption that all parties would rather win converts. There are, in fact, a number of religions that place absolutely no value on conversions and make no attempts to proselytize. Indeed, there are religions one can only be born into.

    Setting all that aside for the moment, you are, of course, correct that there is nothing in a multi-level selection perspective that denies the significance of individuals or individual level adaptations. However, a multi-level selection perspective does mean that one cannot assume any particular trait under consideration evolved for the good of that trait. A trait may have evolved for its own benefit, but it might have evolved due to selection at the level of the individual or the level of the group. The salient question, then, is at what level selection is acting on the trait. And lets not forget that traits can evolve for non-adaptive reasons as well.

  5. Organic organsims are produced by collections of linked DNA genes. Cultural organisms are produced by collections of linked memes. It isn't intended as some sort of metaphor - the definition of the term 'organism' is such that it applies to cultural entities without modification.

    The "all" was intended to refer to all the religions I mentioned - catholics, protestants and hindus - not to every single religious system there ever was.

    The point I intended was that most religions would rather help themselves than 'related' religions - i.e. they are self-interested. I wasn't claiming that the degree of altruism was always going to be correlated with the degree of cultural relatedness. Much like you, I can quickly think of dozens of potential confounding factors.

  6. I admit, I haven't finished reading the new book, but having just enjoyed a series of meetings with EO Wilson & a talk by him on his new book, I don't take away whatsoever that he feels scientific rationality will replace religious-self interest. Quite the contrary in fact--in his 2006 book "The Creation," which I had my students read in anticipation of the event because it was shorter & cheaper, he speaks directly to the Baptist-like preachers of his Alabama youth in a plea to enjoin with scientists toward a conservationist ethos. Interestingly, one of the students recalled her youth minister talking about the book & called him up to talk about it when she realized the connection. Apparently, the message got thru in at least one case. My own research is focused on religious ecology--why people choose the religious course they do, what they get out of it, what they put into it, what the feedback is for sustaining a group in a religious marketplace, akin to DS Wilson's similar use of the multi-level selection model--so I am sympathetic to what you are saying. But I have to say, EO Wilson could not have been more excited about this more potentially mutually validating approach. He has a considerable amount of venom for Dawkinsians & their efforts to replace anything religious with something "more rational." So, again, I may be basking in the warm glow of being validated by one of the most famous scientist my employer (University of Alabama) has produced (&, full disclosure, I helped host his talk), but I actually think he would agree with your bottom line.

    1. Then more's the pity that side of Wilson didn't shine through in his book. Indeed, if he really does wish religious leaders to enjoin with scientists toward a conservationist ethos as you say, he would do well to dispense with dismissing religious world views as mere superstition and positing scientific views as inherently superior. I have noticed over the years, though, that even the atheists most sympathetic to religion, such as David Sloan Wilson, have a tendency from time to time to employ language that comes across as arrogant and imperialistic.